How you spend your time is how you spend your life. (Annie Dillard)
The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run. (Henry David Thoreau)
In an information-rich world, the wealth of information means the dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. (Herbert Simon, a Nobel-prize winning social scientist, 1921)
Where Did the Time Go?
Common Sense Media estimates that children spend 7-9 hours a day on screens. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that 8- to 10 year-olds spend 8 hours a day with digital media while teenagers spend 11 hours in front of screens. Adults are no better, as no one is there to limit their screen time – according to study by Nielsen, adults spend over 11 hours per day interacting with digital media. Another study estimated that the heaviest smartphone users (which we can assume the majority of young “digital natives” are) touch their phone 5,427 times a day.
A wide range of negative consequences of this seismic shift in kids’ behavior has been documented, from sleep deprivation to lack of social skills to decline in academic performance and physical fitness to skyrocketing rates of depression and anxiety. But what about the most obvious thing that happens when our children never look up from their screens?
Kids today are absent from real life.
I think that is one of the most tragic things that happens right in front of our eyes every day, and we don’t even think twice about it.
Kids and teens today totally miss real life as humans experienced it for millennia. They don’t have the time for it! There are 24 hours in a day, children spend 8 of them sleeping (hopefully, if parents remember to take the devices away at bedtime), about 7 hours at school, and as researchers tell us, 7-9 hours per day engaging in screen time use. If my math is correct, 8+7+9, that leaves… wait a minute… absolutely nothing for doing anything else?! When do they brush their teeth?!
If the child is to do something constructive and meaningful in their life, be it personal hygiene, extracurricular activities, playing outside, spending time with their families, reading, doing homework, anything – those wholesome activities compete with hours currently devoted to screen time use.
The Cost of Not Missing Out
The need to participate in every online activity that comes their way is often driven by the ubiquitous Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), which Wikipedia describes as “a pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent”. What children and adults are often not calculating is what I’d like to call the Cost of Not Missing Out.
There is a concept in economics called opportunity cost. It is defined as the loss of other options when one alternative is chosen. Once you spend your money on something, you can’t spend it on something else. But money is a renewable resource, so when you are broke, you just go back to work and make more. Time is different. When applied to the time of your life, opportunity costs basically means that if you choose to do one thing you lose the opportunity to do another – because you cannot do both. Time is the most limited resource we have. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.
And our children are spending (wasting!) pretty much ALL of their available free time on screens.
They don’t see the sky and the trees. Too busy planting virtual crops in Minecraft, they don’t stop to smell the real roses in the garden. They are not interested in sunsets over the ocean or magnificent mountain views, unless it could be used as a suitable background for a selfie, to be posted immediately to collect the likes from their superficial online friends, while staring at their screen – not the sunset.
They are not looking in the faces of their loved ones anymore. Family dinner – if it happens at all – happens in silence with mom and dad and the children each absorbed in their respective screen. If this happens in your home, it is your job as a parent to put your own phone down first, setting a good example for your kids and establish healthy technology boundaries around family time. Common Sense Media has launched the Device-Free Dinner initiative to encourage family connection for healthier outcomes in children’s lives.
The author Tim Urban calculated that by the time children leave home after high school, they would have used up 93% of the total time they have together with their parents. How much of that time have children and parents actually been fully present with each other? With the phone in everyone’s hands – not much. What’s left? 7% of getting together for the holidays over their adult years, and then parents die.
Screens always win
When it comes to our kids preferences – screens win. If we let them, our kids would only part with an iPad if it drops out of their hands as they collapse from exhaustion. If my husband and I don’t step in and impose screen time limits, they will just keep playing. Most teens will not put the phone down – deliberately, independently, intentionally, and for a long time – to do something else.
The phone is always in their hand or within reach to instantly distract them from real life.
Every time I take my youngest child to the playground, I see groups of kids standing around a kid with a phone looking at the screen together – but not playing together, not running around, not using playground equipment – definitely not moving their bodies or engaging in imaginative play which was the whole point of going to the playground in the first place! We see this scene all the time and we are so used to it, we don’t find it disturbing – but it is.
And what about reading? They read less. Taking time – hours of time – to read one book, to think deeply about the story line and characters, is just not as gratifying as YouTube or video games or digital gossip on social media. Wait, what about all the digital books available today? With so many books on the screens, kids should be reading more, right? Let’s think.
When we hand over the iPad on which books are available – along with games, YouTube, and social media, what will kids choose?
Digital ethicist Tristan Harris describes the competition between digital media products as “a race to the bottom of the brain stem”.
The human brain is evolutionarily wired to look for the path of least resistance: kids will naturally pick the easiest to consume, most entertaining options – which are not books. Reading requires a lot more mental effort, it’s a workout for the brain, while other digital media is just pure fun.
The result is reading being replaced with consuming tiny snippets of trivial information, conveniently designed for the newly degraded human attention span.
I am a voracious reader, the habit formed by my childhood in the Soviet Union. Reading was pretty much the only available form of indoor entertainment. There were no computers, cell phones, or the Internet. Our TV had 2 channels, one would be showing a communist party meeting, another a Swan Lake ballet. Not the most enticing options for a kid! But today I think of it as a blessing. I started reading at age 7 and never stopped. What I observe in my own children today is that they pick up a book only when other forms of digital entertainment are not available.
Nature abhors a vacuum – if parents remove the option to engage in bad digital habits, kids just might pick up some good ones like reading. In our family, the saving grace is Amazon’s Kindle Paperwhite – it’s just books and nothing else. That’s the only unrestricted screen time our kids have. And they read for hours every day.
It’s like eating healthy – if the only things available to eat at your house are fruits and veggies they would eventually have to eat them once they get hungry! However, if there is an open jar of cookies (or iPads, gaming consoles and TV remotes within easy reach), that is what they will go for.
What about friendships? The sheer volume of communication teens engage in is overwhelming, but it’s a mile wide and an inch deep. Kids today are lonelier than ever – although they are chatting with their online friends non-stop. They are losing the skills to connect with those friends in ways other than texting – which is a poor substitute. The quality of online relationships can never match the real human connection people build with each other face to face – the very art our children are losing thanks to screens.
They spend hours discussing things online, but every time I take a close look at one of those streaks of teen communication, I am shocked by the sheer meaninglessness of it! An endless exchange of likes, emojis, gossip, cute cat videos, selfies and mean remarks – what a monumental WASTE OF TIME! It does absolutely nothing for their personal development, more often than not makes them feel bad about themselves – especially girls. There are a million better ways to spend hours every day to build a more fulfilling life.
The unfortunate reality is that children today are unlikely to make the healthy choice to limit technology themselves.
The pull of technology is irresistible, as digital media is deliberately designed by tech companies to be addictive. Plus, there is a biological fact that kids’ brains are not fully grown and are not yet equipped to resist the temptation of this powerful digital drug.
Children and adults think that the time they spend on screens is freely given. That it’s their choice, an act of free will. The creators of digital media know better. They have spent millions of dollars on the other side of those screens to make sure that the product they create is as addictive as possible – be it video games, social media, or the latest trendy app – it needs to capture the attention and hold it as long as possible.
Attention converts to money.
In today’s attention economy digital media is optimized for maximum screen time, and by default – for maximum absence from the other conflicting pursuits of life, such as family time, caring for your mind and body, appreciation of nature, productivity, and spiritual growth.
When people look up from the screen, the money stops flowing.
To keep humans glued to their devices, cutting-edge behavioral psychology is used by the industry to exploit multiple cognitive biases in the brain.
Humans have been hacked, and they did not even notice.
This process works best with the younger, more malleable brain. Kids today seem to have lost the ability to just be, to find ways to entertain themselves in their own head. If all stimulation is external, instantly available and abundant on the screen, what’s the point in developing your own mind?
They don’t know how to be bored anymore. Earlier in our parenting journey, we read the book Bringing Up Bebe (about bringing up civilized European kids as opposed to our American brats), and one of the core ideas was letting children be bored so they can learn how to entertain themselves without bugging their parents. Another lost art.
Their attention span is minuscule – according to study by Microsoft, human attention span dropped from 12 to 8 seconds (goldfish is 9 seconds). The essential human ability to delay gratification is long gone. Their time is controlled by the digital media industry that is interested in their attention – not their well being.
Life is Short
But real life is still here, it was not put on hold with the dawn of a digital age. It is still happening parallel to all the digital distractions. The universe did not add extra time to deal with all this new activity – there is still only 24 hours in a day. Time waits for nobody.
With every waking hour spent on the screen, the “digital natives” are absent from reality. They are not even interested – it’s too boring for their overstimulated brains. Meh. 😐
It’s googling an answer instead of thinking. It is video games instead of reading. It’s sitting on the couch with a screen instead of going outside to play. It’s social media instead of face-to-face conversation. It’s YouTube instead of talking to your family over dinner.
All the essential human activities are being crowded out by poor digital substitutes – that devour all of our kids’ time.
Not only excessive use of technology robs kids of life in the present, it also robs them of the future. How much time is wasted in mindless social media and gaming that could be productively spent preparing for an adult life: education, career, creative pursuits, relationships? Shallow digital activities accomplish nothing in the service of forming a well-rounded human being. The sad example of a future squandered by screens is young adult men so addicted to video games that they fail to launch completely, unable to complete their education, hold a job, or build a family.
Wasting their short life here on Earth.
Time Management Philosophy
There is a well-known exercise performed in business schools and productivity training seminars: a popular time management analogy called the “rock, pebbles, and sand story.”
The jar is your available time. The big rocks are the most important things in life: education, work, relationships, self-care. The pebbles are smaller everyday tasks and chores, and the sand is the trivial entertainment stuff you can actually live without. To fill all of those into the jar, the essentials (big rocks) of sleep, nutrition, exercise, learning, relationships, family time – need to get into the “jar of time” FIRST, pebbles second, and then, if there is space left over for desirable non-essentials like Minecraft and YouTube, by all means, go for it – but they should not be the first priority.
Our kids prefer to do it backwards: first fill out their jars with sand of digital time-wasters, then rush through homework and meals and chores (small pebbles), and have no time left for the really important things in life – their health, their relationships, their mind. The jar is full before important stuff gets a chance of fitting in.
Technological visionary Kevin Kelly in his book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future estimated that every second mankind globally manufactures 6,000 square meters of information storage material (disks, chips, DVD, paper, film) and promptly fills it with data. 6,000 meters per second is the approximate rate of the atomic bomb explosion shock wave – only this informational explosion does not stop like the bomb. It has been going on for decades.
There is another observation in the computer industry called Moore’s Law: since the 1970s, the power of computers has doubled every year or and a half, and today’s computers are millions of times more powerful than their predecessors. The computing power is necessary to store and process the exploding amount of information. Social scientists refer to it as the Knowledge Doubling Curve: until year 1900, human knowledge doubled approximately every century. By 1950 human knowledge doubled every 25 years. In 2000, human knowledge doubled every year. Now, with ubiquitous tracking of human behavior and growing metadata, it is estimated that our knowledge is doubling every day.
When this information overload clashes with the limited time humans have to consume it, time can easily disappear in trying to deal with it all.
There are thousands of apps vying for our attention. We lock our homes and protect our valuables, but a phone notification easily destroys the time we allocated for work or for family time – distracting us with something trivial, so the digital media industry makes yet more money from our diverted attention.
No wonder people are overwhelmed. No wonder kids have no time to finish homework until late at night – latest memes and viral YouTube videos demand their attention!
Which makes it our job as parents to manage our children’s screen time by adding a much needed external self-control to make sure they prioritize important tasks first.
Yes, we have to be their prefrontal cortex – because their own is not there yet! Chances are, from ages 13 to 16 it is going to be hell – teens are convinced they are adults already and are in control of their digital habits. In reality, very few are. We have to survive till their brains are mature enough to operate independently.
If we love your children, to limit their use of technology is the right thing to do.
The author Ryan Holiday said that we protect our physical space more than our time, yet it is time that can never be regained. We need to protect time above all else- for our kids and for ourselves. When the opportunity cost of too much screen time is missing out on the most important things in our short life, that’s all the FOMO we need to have.
To take control of your children’s screen time and give them back the time of their life, you can find many ideas in the Solutions section of our website.
Footnotes and sources:
Kevin Kelly The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future
Ryan Holiday https://ryanholiday.net/a-radical-guide-to-spending-less-time-on-your-phone/
Photo by Kevin Ku on Unsplash